Friday, February 5, 2010

Reduction Multi-Color Linocut Tips and Tricks

This post compiles several months worth of learning while doing multiple color linocuts.
These are the things I've screwed up and learned from.

Before I begin I'll start with a few points on how I work-

1. I work very opaquely. I can try and answer questions about transparency, but they'd be just educated guesses, not tips from real life experience.

2. I only print with oil based litho color inks. This means modifiers are in order. Modifiers and I have become close friends.


  • Print with a hard or semi-hard roller. Soft rollers tend to fill in delicate lines. In reduction linocuts you want the ink to sit on top of the block and hard rollers do the trick nicely.
  • Rolling quickly picks up ink. Rolling slowly deposits it. On your ink slab you want to roll fast to lift the ink, and on the block you want to roll slow to lay it down. 
  • It's sometimes helpful to mix ink the day before you print just to get a feel for its consistency. Mixing an ink loosens it a great deal, and by the time you're ready to print you may find it's hardened or changed quite a bit. 
  • Add modifiers just before you print. Modifiers and time generally don't mix well. Especially cobalt drier...It's fine to mix up your color earlier, but save the additives for later. 
  • When mixing ink and testing the consistency, test with a small 1/2 inch or 1 inch roller. This way you'll be able to see how the ink rolls out without having a big mess to clean up, and you can save your larger roller for good prints. 
  • Blocks can be cleaned with just mineral spirits or vegetable oil and a clean rag. Remember to degrease the block before you print again though, either with denatured alcohol or a household cleaner like Simple Green, especially if using vegetable oil, which tends to be very greasy.
  • Give yourself plenty of time! The one time you find you need to print an edition in an hour is the one time -everything- will go wrong.


  • Printing on a paper with texture is, in most cases, not the best idea. In fact, I generally stretch my paper on a litho press before I begin (placing the paper on a large block and running it through the litho press, which stretches and smooths the paper). This way if there's a great deal of pressure when printing the block the paper doesn't stretch in the process and cause the registration to be off. Stretching ensures for spot-on registration.
  • When cutting and registering paper include about 3-4 newsprint pieces that are also registered. This way before printing the edition on good paper, the newsprint paper can act as a test to see how the colors interact with one another, and how the ink sits on top of the previous layer. This way too, there isn't risk of ruining a good pull from the edition.


  • To ensure a nice even coat, roll slowly over the block until it looks as though there is a great deal of ink on the block. Roll out the excess ink on the roller on a clean part of your slab and roll quickly a few times over the block (from different directions) to lift off a little of the excess and unify the coat. Modifiers will come into play with this too, see below (Miracle Gel Reducer in particular) for more...
  • FAT OVER LEAN....or...GREASY OVER NOT SO GREASY...or...INK WITH STUFF IN IT ON TOP OF INK WITHOUT AS MUCH STUFF IN IT. This is the, the, -the- main thing to know when printing a multi-color linocut. If you find your ink is not sitting over your last layer of ink this is probably the problem. You never want to start out with a really greasy first layer because subsequent layers are going to need even more grease to sit on top. When beginning a reduction linocut I generally don't modify the ink very much- a little magnesium carbonate and cobalt drier are enough. The next layer I'll add a little bit of grease, and a little more to the next, and so on and so forth, but this will be covered more in the modifiers. If you find your ink isn't sitting on top of your previous layer try adding a little grease to it (such as linseed oil).

THE MODIFIERS (not all of them, but the most important for this process)

  • Linseed Oil- The main component in oil based ink. Ink is generally just linseed oil and pigment (with a few little things added in). That's it. If you want to loosen up an ink, add some more linseed oil. Add in small doses.
  • Magnesium Carbonate- A white powdery substance that can be added up to 100%. Doesn't alter the color of the ink. Stiffens (or "shortens") ink, adds body, and decreases greasiness. Reduces tack.
  • Setswell- Loosens oil based ink, creates transparency and reduces shine. Thins and softens ink that are too stiff and seem "dry" when printed.
  • Cobalt Drier- The best friend of anyone who needs to print a color a day. Although it's recommended to only add a tiny drop of this powerful drying agent, you can sometimes get away with adding more. I've been known to add a great deal (20-30% in a bind) BUT you need to be ready to print -FAST- because the ink will literally dry on the slab. If adding a great deal only roll out enough ink to cover your roller. In a pile, the ink seems to dry slower, so just take it as you need it. Also, if you add cobalt drier and keep the ink to print again later it -will- work, it just needs to be used within a day or two, and generally loosened up a bit because it will probably have begun to harden somewhat. 
  • Dullit- Print too shiny? Hate shiny? Want to murder shiny as it blinds you in the face as you try to photograph your print after it's finished? It's all just personal preference of course, but personally I'm not a fan of shiny prints, give me matte any day. So the solution? Why, Dullit! Add about 10-15% to ink to decrease shininess. Just make sure not to add too much or it'll mix up like concrete. 
  • Miracle Gel Reducer- I've saved the best for last. This little gem is basically the answer to everything. I'm voting for MGR next presidential campaign... Almost any relief printing problem can be cured with a small dose of miracle gel reducer. It reduces body and tack of oil based inks, without increasing greasiness. It makes relief inks release onto paper easier and reduces roller and lap marks on large flat areas of color. Its ability to cure cancer has not yet been proven, but I'm pretty sure it could probably do that too. Side note- there is a counterpart to MGR called "Gelled Medium" but for me it...just isn't the same.
  • Miracle Gel Reducer and Magnesium Carbonate- The dream team. The right amount of the two of these almost always ensures for near perfect consistency. Generally I add magnesium carbonate to give a little more body to the ink (the amount depending on the consistency of the ink to begin with- stiff inks get just a dash, and loose inks get quite a bit), then a bit of miracle gel reducer to decrease the tack. When mixing the ink I generally look to see if the palette knife picks up all the ink on the slab, without leaving a residue. With any of these modifiers it's going to take some practice to know what the "right" consistency looks and feels like, but starting with these two little gems is probably a good place to learn. 
Both the school and the museum I work at order most of its modifiers from either Daniel Smith or Graphic Chemical. In fact, everything except the MGR can be found at Graphic Chemical. They're particular amazing for their discussion board. Because it's a small company they are -extremely- helpful and personable. -ANY- question you have about -ANY- of their products is generally answered within a day or two, usually by the owner of the company. Overall just an amazing company.


  • Rainbow Roll (or Gradients)- Rainbow rolls are a way of putting multiple colors down in a single pass. Lighter or darker variants of a single color can also be used to make a gradient. The ink it mixed up and put down on the slab one right next to another so that all the colors form a single (or near single, little gaps are okay) line of ink. The roller is then passed over this line of ink, and mixes on the roller. For example, if white is laid down next to a dark blue, the roller passes over the two and a line forms between the two of a new color- a light blue. The roller then passes over the block to create a gradient when printed.

If the task of printing look overwhelming, just remember- you've only got three things that can really be screwed up: the paper, the press, or the ink. It's got to be one of the three, so don't get discouraged!

Thanks for reading this far! I hope some of these were helpful and not a complete waste of time. If you have any other questions about the process or problems with printing feel free to comment and I'll try and help if I can. Check back soon for progress on my next multi-color linocut.


Sherrie Y said...

Hey, Kellie! Great info, thanks for taking the time to compile it all. I'm going to go to bed chuckling about MGR for president.... I just got my new tin in the post this week!

Wendy Willis said...

Great information. I have already picked up some tips for my next one. What type of paper do you use? Do you print with newprint after printing to pickup extra ink? In one of your older posts you talked about blocking out parts of the plate. Can you describe that a little more. I also would love to see photos of your registration method. I have learned too from Sherrie and am grateful you blogging printmakers are so willing to share your techniques. I never use Miracle Gel and been set straight!!! Thanks for a valuable tool!

Kellie Hames said...

Hi Wendy,
Glad it helped a bit! :) To quickly answer a few questions... I typically print with Rosapina Fabriano because it's a nice, inexpensive paper. However, I only use the white paper because the colored ones tend to fade and change with time. I don't use newsprint to strip the ink. Generally I find most of the ink gets picked up with the regular pull, and any residue left just gets covered with new ink. If the ink is bad or a bunch of crap gets mixed in and printed (cotton particles from a rag, linoleum bits, etc) I just clean my block with mineral spirits and start again. I'll cover the masking/blocking in a later post more in depth (basically it's just contact paper with holes cut in it for the area that gets the color here's the only image I have up so far), along with registration. I'm really interested to find out other people's registration methods as well, as it seems each person's is so unique! I'd love to see your registration system as well. :)

barbara@sparrowavenue said...

thank you for all the information.
I generally go one step at a time so the tip about rolling speed is just great.
Sometimes it's just the smallest thing that can make a difference.
As for the president...

Kai said...

Kellie, Thank you so much for taking the time to compile this, as a semi-self taught student of printmaking this answers so many of my questions. This opens up a whole new world to my work!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for all these informations it is very usefull for me and my students. I'm making a 550 copies print with the reduction process printing, the image is very simple, a colored ground and a second printing with 3 colors over it, we have just 1 month to finish it so your blog helps a lot!

le cas de la valise said...

thank you so much for sharing these great tips and experiences! i learned a lot! cheers!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing these useful tips, Kellie! :)